If there was a saying that Papa Grymm would instill in us kids (besides to clean our rooms), it would be to make ourselves as uncomfortable as humanly possible. I don’t mean wearing sweater vests in the summer, folks, but rather stepping outside those little boxes we build for ourselves. Discomfort begets growth, after all. And what can be more uncomfortable than atonal, ambient black metal? And few do weird as well as Belgium’s Emptiness. In 2014, they caught my attention, thanks to Jean-Luc Ricard‘s stellar coverage of Nothing but the Whole. A grotesque, otherworldly experience, Whole garnered a ton of press and attention, and its follow-up, Not for Music, continues down stranger, weirder roads usually untraveled.
Back to the topic of discomfort, one thing that’s readily apparent is that Not for Music largely left their black metal roots behind. Opener “Meat Heart” lulls the listener with an ethereal dream-like keyboard, with a barely distorted guitar playing a repetitious tremolo under Phograth’s mumble-growling. Whereas Whole used black metal as a skeleton to build their bipolar beast upon, on here the band decide that Katatonia‘s earlier period (namely Brave Murder Day) would better suffice for a more grotesque, uglier creation. Midway in, just when you think the band is building up to a great crescendo, all goes quiet again, keeping the listener on their toes. The song finally closes out not with a bang, but with pained gasps and distant howls.
It’s these moments of disharmony and uncertainty that propel Not for Music. Immediate follow-up “It Might Be” continues on the shoegaze path until an out-of-nowhere didgeridoo knocks you on your ass at 4:10 and deafens you for a few seconds. “Ever” would fit right in on a Til Tuesday album, if Aimee Mann were to be mysteriously replaced by Phograth. Album highlight “Your Skin Won’t Hide You” emulates Sweden’s favorite dead-end kings with its rubbery opening melody, creepy atmosphere, and crafty songwriting. By going off the beaten, blackened path, Emptiness created a worthy follow-up to Nothing But the Whole. In fact, only on closer “Let It Fall” does the band exhibit flourishes of blackened ferocity, but by then, they’d successfully won me over.
What didn’t win me over were some of the production choices. Jeordie White (Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson) produced the album, and while the overall sound has some decent clarity despite its lack of dynamics, there is some noticeable clipping and distortion at low volumes, especially during 1:03-1:08 of “Meat Heart” and the didgeridoo in “It Might Be.” The bass also takes a hit, sounding a bit too fuzzed out for its own good (“It Might Be”). Also, “Digging The Sky” drags during the first half of the song until the band picks up some much-needed energy three minutes in.
Still, Emptiness impressed me during the time of the year where it takes quite a bit to do so, and all they had to do was bring their uncomfortable A-game. While Nothing But the Whole is still my go-to for discomfort, Not for Music displays a stranger, fucked up snapshot of where the band could be heading, and I’m intrigued to see how far down the rabbit hole they’ll go. If you can get past some of the production woes, Not for Music will reward you in repeated plays.